“This is a 5.9?!” Visit enough crags and you’ll learn climbing’s universal truth: Ratings are subjective. Grades depend on when an area was developed, what gear was available at the time, which climbers were establishing routes, and so forth. And when certain routes seem optimistically graded, they usually don’t get changed—instead, they get billed as sandbagged. But these aren’t routes to avoid. On the contrary, they deliver some of the country’s most fun and spicy climbing. Here are seven of our favorites.
The Dorsal Fin (5.10d), Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah
Salt Lake local Andrew Gram describes this canyon as “one giant sandbag if you aren’t used to slippery friction.” Brush up on your slab climbing technique and don your best smearing shoes before attempting The Dorsal Fin. The crux comes at you quickly, on the heady first pitch: Step delicately up the slab, hold your breath on the 5.10d slab, and gun for the chickenheads at the belay bolts. It only lets up slightly on ensuing pitches as you continue up slick granite. Hot days and sweaty hands make this route’s rating seem even more unreasonable. Advice from Gram on such days: “God help you.”
Guidebook: Rock Climbing Utah’s Wasatch Range, by Stuart and Bret Ruckman ($35, amazon.com)
Tits and Beer (5.9+), Looking Glass Rock, North Carolina
After completing the first ascent in 1977, Looking Glass developers and Bob Rotert and Ted Anderson named their new line Tits and Beer in tribute to a Frank Zappa song. Today, after completing this climb, most climbers refer to it by its original grade and nickname: “The World’s Hardest 5.8.” Pull through the exposed “Michelin Man” bulges on the third pitch, and see if it’s like any other “5.8” you have ever done. Rotert now admits the route is “closer to a 5.9 or even 5.10a.”
Guidebook: Selected Climbs in North Carolina, by Yon Lambert and Harrison Shull ($24.95, mountaineersbooks.org)
Critical View (5.8), Mt. Rushmore National, Memorial, South Dakota
Depending on when you climb Critical View, it could be anywhere from 5.9 to 5.10. How? Erosion—and your height. The ground at the start erodes away substantially every year, leaving the first move (a pull to a large knob) higher and higher off the ground and creating what Mt. Rushmore regular Andrew Gram describes as a “tricky, two-move 5.10 start.” Frustrated by Mother Nature’s blatant sandbagging, climbers often place cheater stones and logs under the start for a boost and to return the route to its original 5.8 rating.
Guidebook: The Needles of Rushmore, by Andrew Busse and Andrew Burr ($35.95, blackhillsrockclimbingguides.com)
Scirocco (5.12-), The Needles, California
Often called one of the best (albeit runout) sport climbs in the Needles, Scirocco tests you both mentally and physically. Conditions are often windy, hence the origin of the route name (Scirocco is a Mediterranean wind that blows in North Africa and southern Europe). After a section of steep crimps, shake out, pray for a gentle breeze, and wind up for the perfect arête that leads to the chains. Keep your breath calm and your heart rate normal, or you might catch serious air on some of the widely spaced bolts.
Poseidon Adventure (5.10 R), River Road, Moab, Utah
Guidebook author Greg Barnes ranks this as “the most sandbagged” climb he has ever done. “Overhanging” and “offwidth” usually imply strenuous climbing, but combine them, like on the second pitch of Poseidon Adventure, and you have a monster. Some chimney this taxing section, but others throw down with offwidth moves—and increase the grade. First ascensionist Jeff Achey describes how the route got its name when he and Ed Webster “got caught in a downpour and hid in a little cave, with water pouring in on us like a scene from that old sinking-ocean-liner movie, The Poseidon Adventure.”
Guidebook: Rock Climbing Utah, Second Edition, by Stewart Green ($29.95, amazon.com)
Golden Locks (5.8+), The Tennessee Wall, Tennessee
The 10 feet of slightly overhanging and powerful climbing that starts Golden Locks stumps many climbers and leads them to denounce the route as sandbagged. But the route’s true prize, a splitter hand crack, comes just after the start. So focus on those “golden jams” for your mitts, says local guide Swis Stockton, to surpass the tough start moves and for “smooth sailing on huge locks.” Some guidebooks label this route 5.9.
Guidebook: Tennessee Dixie Cragger’s Atlas, Volume 1, by Chris Watford will be released in July 2013. ($30, dixiecragger.com)
Whimsical Dreams (5.11-), Turkey Rocks, Colorado
According to guidebook author Stewart Green, routes at Turkey Rock have always been stiff because they were developed by Colorado Springs climbers in “a bit of a vacuum,” with few climbs nearby to use as yardsticks for ratings. This classic Jimmie Dunn route is certainly no exception. Green says that when Jimmy Dunn rates a climb 5.10++, it means “Watch out!” Take this advice if you attempt Whimsical Dreams, which now clocks in at 5.11-. After you stem and jam through a left-facing corner and small roof, muster your energy to charge the 5.10 roof that guards the chains.